herald

Monday 23 April 2018

I was there when they shot JFK

HISTORY: Four people who saw the president's murder 50 years ago tell Philip Sherwell their stories

OMINOUS: President John F Kennedy and his wife Jackie (left) just before he was shot.
OMINOUS: President John F Kennedy and his wife Jackie (left) just before he was shot.

The shots that rang out across Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas 50 years ago were reverberating around the world within minutes, a defining moment of the 20th century, as television news came of age.

It was with the assassination of President John F Kennedy on November 22, 1963, that people first asked: "Where were you when you heard the news?" But a small group of people were there that day – not just as witnesses to history, but chance participants in it.

There was the deputy sheriff who found the rifle that killed the president; the nurse who checked in vain for Kennedy's vital signs when he was rushed into hospital; the television newsman who unwittingly passed the sniper as he fled the scene; and the car salesman who was late for a date with a girlfriend when he was hit by debris from a bullet fired at Kennedy and is now a leading JFK conspiracy theorist.

SOCIALITE

Here they all tell their stories of that day's momentous, as America begins a month-long outpouring of remembrances and a barrage of books is published about the young president cut down in front of his beautiful, socialite wife, Jackie.

Kennedy had taken office in 1961 but barely 1,000 days later, he was dead. "We lost our innocence that day in Dealey Plaza," said Gene Boone, who was a sheriff's deputy when his torch picked out a rifle stashed between stacked boxes on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

That was 1.22pm on November 22. Less than an hour earlier, he had been standing outside the sheriff's department as the presidential motorcade swept past him, America's First Couple beaming and waving.

Other vehicles in the motorcade were still passing Boone and his colleagues when a gunshot punctured the air at 12.30pm. As he dashed across a street towards the centre of the plaza, two more shots were fired.

Moone was tasked with searching the depository. "Most people believed the shots had come from one of the higher floors, so we were deployed to search the building," he said.

By a corner window with a clear view down on to the parade route, another officer quickly found the sniper's nest. Then, near the stairwell, Boone found something else "There were two stacks of books and the top row of one had been pushed across to create a crevice where you could conceal something. And there it was. I remember I called out to the others: 'Here's a rifle.'"

MARKSMAN

The Italian-made, 6.5mm Carcano, was soon identified as belonging to Lee Harvey Oswald (24) a former US Marine and trained marksman, who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, only to return to the US in 1962 with a Russian wife. He had begun work at the depository a few weeks earlier. He was identified by a series of investigations as a lone, disgruntled killer. Oswald protested his innocence but was gunned down two days later by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner.

Meanwhile, the presidential limousine had arrived at 12.38pm at Parkland Memorial Hospital. There, Phyllis Hall, a nurse in the outpatient clinic was working as Kennedy's stretcher went by. "I could just see a man from his waist down as there was a lady lying across his head and shoulders," she said. We were whisked into the Trauma One room, where it was immediately clear this was President Kennedy. I started to feel for his vital signs. I couldn't find any, there was no pulse. His eyelids were half-closed, his pupils were fixed and dilated, and his skin was blueish-grey, indicating that no oxygen was circulating."

As the doctors worked frantically to resuscitate their patient, Mrs Kennedy stood next to her husband, her right hand on his left foot. "We were desperately searching for any sign of life, but there was nothing," said Hall.

James Tague never meant to be in Dealey Plaza but ended up so close that he was, he believes, wounded by the debris from a bullet. The car salesman was late for a lunch date with a "pretty redhead" who would become his wife, so was frustrated when he found himself stuck in traffic.

STING

Only after leaving his vehicle to look for the cause of the hold-up did he see a motorcade ahead and recall that the president was in town that day. Seconds later, he heard what he thought was a firecracker, followed by two more cracks, clearly gunshots now, and a sharp sting to his face.

Tague has become obsessed with the assassination and has just published a new book that he claims "reveals all". In LBJ And The Kennedy Killing, he calls it a "coup d'etat" organised by Vice President Lyndon Johnson and covered up by FBI chief J Edgar Hoover.

Pierce Allman, another witness to that day's events, is unswayed. "There is a different theory every day," said Mr Allman, who was working at the WFAA television station near the plaza and joined the crowds in his lunch break.

"The motorcade came by and then 'boom', the sound that I'll never forget, then two more shots. I could not tell how badly Kennedy was hit, but I knew I had to get to a phone to call the station, and the depository was the nearest building," he said.

Allman raced up the steps of the depository and into the foyer, where he asked a young man where the nearest phone was. "He jerked his thumb and said 'in there'. It was only later, when I spoke to the Secret Service, that they told me the man was almost certainly Oswald.

hnews@herald.ie

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